Caribbean Delights: Soak up some winter sun with P&O Cruises
Think a cruise isn’t for you? Think again, says Josie Millar, after a spectacular voyage on P&O Cruises’ flagship Britannia in the Caribbean
If you have thought about going on a cruise but worry that it isn’t for you, I urge you to reconsider. Like many, I was guilty of assuming that cruises are only for the older generation, but embarking on a P&O Cruises trip to the Caribbean proved me wrong.
Our ship, P&O Cruises’ flagship Britannia, catered for all ages and walks of life, including families, couples and single travellers, and my partner and I, both 30-somethings, boarded with open minds, ready to begin our new adventure.
The journey was seamless – an eight-hour flight from Gatwick to Hewanorra Airport, St Lucia, followed by a two-hour transfer to the port. After a swift check-in we were in our balcony cabin on C-deck admiring the views, and by the time we’d returned from the obligatory safety briefing our luggage was in our room, along with instructions for the evening’s activities.
While our journey started in St Lucia, many of the guests had already been on board for a week – the most common duration for this cruise is 14 nights, although we did meet some guests who had been on the ship for almost four weeks, travelling from Southampton and stopping at numerous destinations along the way.
There are several choices of accommodation. Our tastefully decorated cabin had a balcony with a sea view, loungers, and room service for that extra bit of luxury. Other options are balcony rooms for single travellers, and suites with more living space including a lounge, a dressing area and a larger balcony.
Britannia has a breath-taking atrium. A magnificent sculpture cascades from the ceiling, visible from three balconies where you find shops, bars and restaurants. The opulent décor, extravagant spiral staircase, ritzy marble floor and indulgent seating areas are perfect for relaxing with a glass of wine, or coffee and cake from the patisserie, hosted by master patissier Eric Lanlard.
As a guest on Britannia, you are exquisitely spoilt for choice when it comes to food and drink. For an informal setting there’s the Horizon restaurant, which serves buffet-style food throughout the day; or for something more formal, eat in one of the table-service restaurants, the Meridian or the Peninsula, which serve food at set times.
And for something extra special book one of the Signature Dining restaurants: The Limelight Club, Sindhu, The Beach House, The Glass House and The Epicurean. Each restaurant has its own identity, with menus for all tastes, and to get the real Britannia experience you must try them all. I recommend planning your evenings in advance so you know that you have them covered.
On to drinking. The Sunset Bar is a balcony bar spanning the width of the ship to guarantee a beautiful view – the perfect setting for a cocktail as the sun goes down. The sophisticated Blue Bar in the atrium has a comprehensive cocktail list and we enjoyed many an evening drink here.
For panoramic views during the day or an exclusive experience in the evening, The Crow’s Nest, with a live pianist and menu of over 30 gins, screams modern elegance with stylish seating and decor.
If you want to catch up on sporting events and sample some of the 65 bottled beers and ciders on board, head to the luxurious yet relaxed sports bar Brodie’s. And for lazy mornings enjoy coffee and cake from the Java Lounge, serving Costa Coffee in the atrium or on the terrace, while reading the papers.
Evening entertainment varies from music and comedy to star performances and fantastic West End-style shows. We were lucky enough to watch Astonishing, the ship’s flagship show, produced by Stephen Mulhern and Jonathan Wilkes, and it was more than a bit special: a display of outstanding illusions by talented dancers that left us wowed and wanting more.
Other shows include live music, tribute bands, comedy acts, cabaret and special guests. Special guests are on the bill at The Limelight Club, an adult-only venue where you can dine and enjoy star performances from the likes of Gareth Gates.
The evening we arrived the Tropical Party was in full swing on the Lido deck, which features two of the ship’s three pools, and a pizzeria and grill that are open until 6pm each night. We had a fantastic array of Caribbean food straight from the grill, accompanied by Caribbean music – the perfect way to get us in the mood for the trip.
Our first full day was a sea day, which gave us time to explore the ship and make dinner arrangements (you can also do this on the cruise personaliser through the P&O Cruises website prior to your journey). We discovered the ship’s Cookery Club, which is endorsed by Marco Pierre White and hosted by the man himself when he is on board. Here you can knock out culinary masterpieces, including tapas, Thai and Indian-inspired dishes, alongside a team of chefs, and enjoy your creations afterwards.
A hidden gem is The Retreat, an adult-only deck area for sunbathing – ideal if, like us, you’ve come for a sneaky break without the kids. It comes at a premium, but we felt it was worth it for the extra luxury and comfort. It has cushioned single loungers and cuddle chairs, fluffy towels, a private dining area, poolside drinks service and two Jacuzzis, all topped off with a panoramic view from the top of the ship.
There are three pool areas: Lido, Riviera and Serenity. We spent most of our time around Serenity, which is a quiet area for those who want somewhere peaceful to read and sunbathe. Where you spend time on a sea day will depend on what you want from the holiday, and I love that you can change location depending on your mood. Some days we had great fun being at the Lido pool, with funky music and a sunny holiday buzz.
The ship has two black-tie evenings a week and there is something special about getting dressed up on a beautiful ship with other guests. We spruced ourselves up and ate in The Beach House, where you can cook steak on lava rock, or enjoy a giant lobster, shrimp, squid and monkfish hanging kebab, all finished off with a milk chocolate fondue accompanied by churros and marshmallows.
Our first island day was Dominica. We arrived at about 8am and found leaving the ship much easier than anticipated – there were no queues, and after a short walk to the end of the pier we were greeted by locals and the sound of steel pans, dancing and singing. Some people had arranged tours of the island through the ship, or you could find a tour operator for an excursion on arrival, but we decided to sample the local food and drink at our own pace.
Hurricane Maria tore through Dominica in 2017 and around 95% of the buildings were damaged, but the island seems to have recovered quickly and most buildings, painted in all sorts of vibrant colours, have been repaired. Walking through the town we discovered wonderful bars serving local beverages, and sampled some bush rum.
When the rain came down, in typical Caribbean style, the need for shelter led us to some extra special places, including a grocery store that doubled-up as a bar. When it eased, a wander round the market was a perfect way to conclude our visit to the island. Excursions through P&O Cruises include trips to the botanical gardens, the hot springs, Hibiscus Waterfalls and to beautiful Mero Beach on the other side of the island.
The anticipation of waking up in a new port each day was exciting. Our next stop was Antigua and, arriving at St John’s dock, it became evident that Antigua is the place to be if you like shopping. The Heritage Quay hosts duty-free shops and boutiques selling jewellery, clothing, handbags, shoes and just about anything else you can imagine.
Preferring a more serene option, we organised a tour to Church Valley Beach, one of 365 beaches on the island, with four other guests from the ship. Church Valley Beach is tranquil, with white sand, a beach bar serving local food and drink, free wifi, and drinks served to your sun lounger. What more could anyone want?
Coconut shrimp served with fries and salad, washed down with a local rum, completed the Antigua experience. We lazily made our way back to the ship in late afternoon and enjoyed some sunbathing on deck before getting ready for dinner.
The Glass House is a stunning wine bar with a charming restaurant, its selection of over 40 wines chosen by wine expert Olly Smith to complement the evening menu. We ordered the sharing platter of beautifully prepared steak with tasty side dishes and made our way through a chilled bottle of prosecco before joining some other guests in the bar area. It was a black tie evening and looking around the atrium to see men in their best suits and women in glamorous evening gowns was an incredible sight in such a prestigious part of the ship.
We didn’t mingle for too long though, as the following morning we were up early for St Maarten, where we transferred to a speedboat to show us around. The speedboat held just eight people, offering a lovely, intimate experience, and we reached this remote island by swimming up to a glistening white sandy beach. We saw turtles, snorkelled in the nature reserve and watched low-flying planes as they arrived over Maho Beach.
Lunch was in a restaurant on the French side of the island where we enjoyed a typical Caribbean meal of barbecued ribs, plantain and potato salad, before hopping back on the speedboat for the last leg of our St Maarten trip. As we motored through the dock the number of shipwrecks from the hurricane was mind-blowing: multi-million-pound yachts on their sides and buoys where wreckages lay beneath the water. It was also a bonus to have a local skipper who gave us lots of information about St Maarten, including the fascinating history of how the north of the island is Dutch and the south is French.
That evening was one of our favourites. We met in the Blue Bar and sampled their Whitley Neill rhubarb and ginger gin with Fever-Tree tonic before making our way to the Headliners Theatre to watch Astonishing, the most talked-about show on board. The show was hosted by co-producer Stephen Mulhern and featured spectacular dancing and illusions leaving the crowd wondering how they achieved such magic live on stage. This is a must-see on Britannia and I could have watched it over and over again.
Thursday was another sea day, sailing towards Barbados. We had breakfast on the balcony in our cabin and then made the most of the sunshine relaxing by the Terrace Pool on the sun deck and meeting other guests. We met a young couple with children under the age of five who were on their first cruise and loving it; a solo traveller who wanted to see the world as part of her bucket list, and a couple who did their first cruise in August and have done another two since. It became clear that cruising is for everyone – and we were completely immersed in the experience.
We were booked to eat at Sindhu, a spectacular restaurant that served the most wonderful Indian cuisine I have ever eaten. It was more of an experience than just a meal: the wine complemented the dishes perfectly, the service was impeccable, and the food was elegant and full of flavour.
We woke the following morning in Bridgetown, Barbados, and after the simple process of organising visas made our way on to the island. Many of the ship’s guests were going to the Boatyard in Carlisle Bay, with some of the most beautiful white sandy beaches in the world.
We decided to visit Sandy Lane, a luxury five-star beach close to Holetown and host to Rihanna’s home. It was a quieter beach with a small bar serving Caribbean food and drink, and after spending the day swimming in the crystal blue sea we enjoyed a flying fish sandwich and a cold beer before returning to the ship.
That evening we left our bags outside our cabin ready for the porter – we wouldn’t see them again until Gatwick – and got ready for our night out in Oistins, Barbados, where there is a legendary street food festival every Friday. Fish is the main focus but there are three areas with live music, and the event is buzzing with locals and tourists all enjoying the local culture and market stalls selling jewellery, pottery and other crafty delights.
The next morning was relaxed and we joined the other returning guests in the Meridian restaurant before departing. The process of getting the coach to the airport, going through security and boarding the plane was simple and didn’t have the usual stresses that can sometimes go with the anticipation of going home.
Cruising is such a sociable experience. We met some wonderful people, and speaking to regular cruisers reinforced my newly held opinion that this is a fantastic way to travel. We will certainly be embarking on a cruise with P&O Cruises again, and the deals available for travelling on this ship in the Caribbean rival those of any other operator.
All photography courtesy of Mike O’Dwyer